March 3, 2015, 7 AM
Cruising past Santarem
This is our last day on the Amazon. We reach the bar at the entrance of the river at 1:30 tomorrow morning. We are traveling fast, faster than twenty knots. We need to be faster than the river current to maintain steerage.
Five days ago we called at Santarem at the juncture of the Tapajos and Amazon Rivers. Our visit was one of those two or three experiences over two months that will define this trip in my memory. I put off writing this letter because our call at Santarem was just too much to process. Each time I tried to write I found no focus, water, color, toucan, sloth, parrot, iguana, hawk, pink dolphin, splash, call of parrot, quality of light, giant lily pad, water hyacinth, overstimulation. It took a while to realize my focus is on one person.
I read books, including the fine print, the notes, acknowledgements and dedications. In my reading about the Amazon the name Gil Serique kept popping up. Gil is a 50 year old Amazon guide who has served as “fixer” for several authors. I Googled him, found him and emailed him to ask if he could find a guide to take us to the old Ford rubber plantation at Belterra. He thought about it and a few weeks later emailed “I have a private tour that day for people from your ship, the Amazon flood plain, 7 hours, join me, you’re gonna love.”
Gil is a complete enthusiast. His logo promises “Wildlife, Science, History, Adventure.”
When we met him at the dock he repeated “you gonna love.” so much that Suzi became suspicious that he was overselling. He was not. Gil is naturally excited about his environment. He loves it and wants us to love it too. “See the iguana in the tree, he is there to catch the sun to warm his cold blooded body. But now a hawk can catch him. He’s in danger but maybe he likes the view.”
Gil is a storyteller. We got on his boat and headed past some feeding pink dolphins, (pink dolphins are a species evolved from the grey dolphin, they are especially adapted for navigating Amazon sloughs, unlike other dolphins their necks turn) through Santarem’s meeting of the waters into Maica Lake. The whole time Gil told stories. They’re his stories to tell, not mine, so I won’t try to repeat the detail that makes them so entertaining. But in brief, his family is Sephardic from Tangier. They came to Santarem in 1850. His grandfather worked with indigenous people helping them run their own rubber operations to compete with the rubber barons. Those people helped Henry Wickham smuggle rubber seeds out of the Amazon to Kew Gardens. His family knew the Confederates who came to the Amazon after the American Civil War to reestablish their slave plantations, because, as Gil said, “Here in Brazil slavery ended, well, yesterday.” Gill wanted a confederate flag for his boat. He asked Americans he guided to send one to him. No one would. He thought it would be an interesting tie into the history of the area. He finally got one from a Brit. One American he asked told him that if he ordered a Confederate flag from eBay the FBI would pay him a visit. Gil said it was only then he realized that flying a Confederate Flag for some Americans would be like flying a Nazi flag for his Jewish family. He has his flag but does not fly it. In the next generation his father joined the army while his uncles went into running brothels during the “wild west” days of the Amazon. When he was a teenager, the youngest in his group, his older friends sent him out to score some pot. He went where they told him to find the dealer, who turned out to be his uncle.
While he was telling this continuous stream of stories his eyes were always scanning. “And then my uncle… Oh look Iguana swimming!” He grabbed his Nikon, body patched with duct tape, took several pictures then continued until “…listen, long tail parrot calling,” or “toucan flying.” He kept the stream of the stories going but never missed spotting wildlife, or some interesting plant to point out to us. It was an entertaining, amazing, performance that included English adventurers, milliners’ agents shooting birds to send their feathers back to hat makers in Piccadilly, Confederate refugees, Jewish life in the Amazon, Henry Ford’s men trying to set up plantations, celebrities he has guided and the Cargill Corporation.
We anchored at Macia Lake. Some of the group headed out in two canoes through the jungle with some of the people living on small holdings as guides while we went with Gil in a skiff to visit giant water lilies, water hyacinth, water buffalo (imported 200 years ago) and different water fowl. As the afternoon rains approached we got back to the bigger boat and, during the rain, Gil took us through the flood plain. This is an area studded with small farms. The families have plots that are dry about 7 months a year, during flood they retreat to their houses on stilts and fish. They lead a partially subsistence life. This area is now under threat because international agricultural companies want to build a large bulk carrier terminal here to ship soybeans. The old, failed, Ford motor company rubber plantations (see post on Manaus) became the first soybean farms. Since then more rainforest has been clearer south of Santarem, for more soybean farms. Now they need a port. Some of the small holders have posted no trespassing signs aimed at the agribusiness people. Gil wants to save this area and, I think, believes that showing it to as many of us as possible will help. He has architectural renderings of what the port will look like; and what will go “right here.”
Throughout our cruise Gil served us some fried yams fresh fruit and beer. After the rain we re-anchored and Suzi and I got into the canoes guided by some of the local small holders. Gil recommended that we just keep silent as we glided through the jungle beneath three toed sloths and pods of Brazil nuts.
All aboard on the ship was 7:30. Gil said we would be back “In plenty of time.” Plenty of time meant 4 minutes. On the way back we were slowed by, what amounted to a Coast Guard inspection. The inspectors counted the number of passengers on the boat, no the boat was not overloaded, and checked the passenger manifest as we looked at our watches. Gil said “don’t worry, I have the Harbor Master’s cell phone number, the boat’s not gonna leave without you.” When we got on board Prinsendam the security officer (who has a badge that says sheriff) looked at his watch and said “four minutes, you still have the keys to the car — not grounded.”
“Wildlife, Science, History, Adventure.” To which I add “joy.”